Residents of the Northwest Territories, some of whom barely escaped with their lives in last year’s fire season, are seeking accountability from the territorial government and Parks Canada, citing serious concerns with fire management, coordination of evacuations, and communication with the public.
Last summer was the worst wildfire season on record for the Northwest Territories as 304 fires razed four million hectares of forest resulting in more than 25,000 people — 70 per cent of the population — being evacuated.
When the flames subsided and residents returned in September, they had many pressing questions. Were the fires monitored and attacked as best as they could? Could communication and evacuations been better handled? And what, if anything, was learned that could improve wildfire response in the future?
Those who had just hours notice to flee on a burning highway between Hay River and Enterprise are at the forefront demanding answers, including a woman who narrowly escaped death with her husband but whose beloved farm animals did not.
With the 2024 wildfire season just around the corner, 1,100 residents, including municipal and Indigenous leaders, are demanding a public inquiry into what, they say, went wrong last year.
Helena Katz of Fort Smith, a community around 2,500 straddling the territory’s border with Alberta, organized the petition, which will be presented to the newly elected territorial government when the legislature resumes Tuesday.
Katz and her husband had days notice to evacuate Fort Smith on Aug. 12 with their alpacas and cattle dogs to Hay River, three hours northwest. Less than 24 hours after arriving in what was supposed to be a safe haven, they were evacuated to Alberta through Enterprise, a hamlet 30 minutes southeast of Hay River.
There had been no warning or alert prior to the order, despite it being protocol in N.W.T’s three-level evacuation system.
“The only highway out was on fire. So it was completely engulfed in flames,” Katz said. “There were flames on both sides of the highway and you couldn’t really see where you were going.”
Katz, her husband and others ended up in ditches while flames closed in and embers rained down.
“My husband and I got out with just what we were wearing,” she explains. They ended up being saved by another motorist, their animals weren’t as fortunate.
The horror of that highway still terrorizes many residents.
Newly elected Premier R.J. Simpson said he understands the fear and frustration felt in the territory as he himself was evacuated from Hay River in 2022 due to flooding and in 2023 from the fires.
“I’m very familiar with this issue, and I know that the people need to see that we’re taking this seriously,” Simpson told Global News. “These were traumatic events.”
'Remote control' firefighting
While the petition for a public inquiry is specific to municipal and territorial response to the 2023 wildfire season, Fort Smith Coun. Louise Beaulieu is among those critical of the handling of a fire in Wood Buffalo National Park, located in the southeast corner of the territory straddling the Alberta border.
The fire was managed by a unified command team consisting of territorial, Alberta and Parks Canada officials, with Parks Canada taking the lead. Beaulieu comes from a long line of forest firefighters and began her career in 1979 as one of the first women in Canada in the field.
“From when I started, what’s changed is basically that crews on the ground ran things,” Beaulieu said. “People who were trained on the ground here.”
She said that now, wildfires are now often managed remotely by people nowhere near the fire. And those with traditional knowledge of fire management in the territory often “don’t meet fitness requirements to be employed in the field any more.”
Beaulieu also said she believes the fire wasn’t attacked fast enough, then conditions worsened.
“They were monitoring small fires there that could have been put out in two hours — that’s how easy it was,” Beaulieu said. She was one of the essential workers who stayed in Fort Smith when it was evacuated on Aug 12.
“Their answer was, ‘We’re monitoring,’ and it got away from them.”
Parks Canada disputes that assessment, telling Global News that ground and air crews were quick to attack the blaze, but it was large and intense and spread quickly because of tinder-dry conditions mixed with high winds. At the time, dry forest conditions were deemed double what is considered extreme.
Parks Canada defends back-burn
A back-burn is a firefighting method that involves starting small fires along a path in front of a wildfire to reduce the amount of fuel that’s available to the main fire.
On Aug. 11, a back-burn was ordered for the Wood Buffalo fire. Beaulieu said dry conditions and unpredictable high winds made that decision risky.
The back-burn backfired, she said, and a day later Fort Smith was evacuated.
The incident commander at the time was Parks Canada fire and vegetation specialist Jane Park. She was quoted in local media explaining how the fire was handled and what led to a call for evacuation.
She told Cabin Radio that winds shifted and smoke — not the fire itself — was cause to evacuate the community, located 13 hours north of Edmonton. She said at the time, that the fire was being attacked from the ground and from the air.
Parks Canada told Global News, the back-burn was ordered “in an attempt to build a smoke column that would subdue fire behavior” and “did not result in fire growth” or lead to the Fort Smith evacuation.
“Parks Canada made a recommendation to implement an evacuation order for the Town of Fort Smith early on (Aug. 12) due to an extreme wind event forecasted for (Aug. 13) not in response to an ignition operation,” said Robyn Hufnagel, chief of media relations for Parks Canada.
On Aug. 13, Hufnagel said the fire grew more than 40 kilometres towards Fort Smith, fuelled by extreme drought and 56 km/h winds.
Locals were skeptical due to Parks Canada’s efforts in an fire in Banff National Park in May 2023. Incident commander Jane Park was also in charge of the controlled burn in that fire, which spiralled out of control amid high winds.
The agency is standing behind its staffer.
“Parks Canada stands behind Jane Park and all Parks Canada team members,” Hufnagel said.
“Incident commanders are experts in wildfire management and our team members are called upon by other domestic and international jurisdictions for their high-level of expertise to help protect communities threatened by wildfires.”
Lacking a connection to the land
Fort Smith evacuee Jeannie Marie-Jewell served as the first female Speaker of the N.W.T. legislature in 1993. Now retired, she is among those critical of wildfire managers who have no ties to the land.
“These people aren’t from here and will never live here but come in and make decisions leaving us with the consequences,” Jewell said. “The animals and forests are devastated.”
Parks Canada told Global News it uses complex remote sensing capabilities, including satellite detection, lightning detection, and remote cameras operated via satellite. And the federal agency disputed the notion that it didn’t have staff on the ground when the wildfire season began.
“We use initial attack crews, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft to conduct regular patrols of the park to detect new starts,” said David Tavernini, fire program manager for Parks Canada in the Southwest N.W.T field unit.
“In periods of elevated fire danger, we conduct multiple throughout the day to allow for rapid detection and management of new fires.”
N.W.T officials hope to calm fears ahead of next fire season
Premier Simpson said several independent third party reviews are underway into the wildfire response and handling of evacuations.
“Those are going to be made public. We’re going to be going out speaking with the public, speaking with Indigenous governments, speaking with other stakeholders, to get everyone’s perspective,” Simpson said.
“We have no excuse not to learn from those lessons and do better next time.”
The N.W.T legislature returns Feb. 6 and Simpson said change is already underway. He won’t commit to an inquiry but said the government is committed to rebuilding public confidence.
“Last year, we brought (fire crews) on a month earlier, because we knew it was going to be a tough season. And this year we’re doing earlier than that. Because we need to change how we do business in the face of climate change,” Simpson said. “I promise that, the public’s voice will be heard.”